One of the more unexpected turnarounds in 2007 is director Francis Lawrence’s sophomore effort, I Am Legend, after the almost unwatchable Constantine comic book adaptation. I Am Legend is also an adaptation (of a movie from a book, adapted several times already), also relies heavily on special effects, and also has a videogame structured narrative—but the surprise is that Lawrence’s film, anchored by a moving, empathetic lead performance by Will Smith, is emotionally rich, visually inspired, and adamantly atmospheric. The good can’t seem to last forever though; the film’s final act turn towards quick, out of nowhere resolutions, hokey attempts at evocations of faith, and a rapid increase of sentimental slop does much to undercut I Am Legend’s excellent, forlorn first half.
After a startlingly well-played television interview by an uncredited Emma Thompson, whose character claims to have cured cancer, the film jumps several years forward to the desolate and overgrown streets of an abandoned New York City. Like Children of Men before it, Lawrence uses extensive special effects less to inspire awe and more to build atmosphere and a convincing world of lost hope. Ironically pairing heavy use of CGI mattes with a refreshing and unexpected amount of location shooting in Manhattan, Lawrence uses these true-false locations to emotionally enhance the solitary existence of solider-scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith). Immune to the doctor’s supposedly curative immunity virus that ravaged the human population, Neville seems to be the last man left alive in an empty world. This desolation is cleverly explored through an almost complete lack of exposition on the part of screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, who instead focus the narrative on the day-to-day activities Neville takes part in around the city, always accompanied by his sole companion, his dog Samantha. We see him hunt for game, perform and record experiments in his basement lab, exercise, wait at the New York waterside at midday for responses to his radio calls for help, and, crucially, close up his Washington Square townhouse fortress for the night. For, as we quickly find out, this virus-ravaged world is inhabited by creatures of the night.
And this is where I Am Legend stumbles, especially in its later sections where the menace is more pronounced. Without ruining anything, the creatures reveal themselves to be prototypical, uninspired, and fake looking computer creations that are precisely emblematic of the way the film takes a nosedive into hackneyed conventionality, spelling things out, and providing absurd resolution towards the end. Yet, until then, Lawrence’s film is a carefully, thoughtfully constructed piece of sci-fi mood and procedure, a series of sequences based as much on the way someone has learned to etch out a living in a post-apocalyptic environment and still maintain hope and spirit, as it is based on the emotional nuance of going through these routines. For us, Neville’s routine carefully distributes information about the world that the script, for a while at least, keeps tantalizingly unsaid; for Neville, the routine with his dog clearly forms a basis of emotional and humanistic dependency that lends this section, and for a while the film itself, with a surprisingly minute focus on the vulnerability and trust Neville must endure and hold on to keep sane, and thus to keep alive. It is I Am Legend’s calm, careful and close attention in these routines that allows it to speak of its sci-fi world as interestingly as it speaks of Neville’s psychology, which is crucially, movingly defined by Smith’s sensitive performance of assured vulnerability. The unexpected strength of the film’s first two thirds, its silences, restrained sentiment, and tension give this blockbuster action film veracity. It is a veracity that is successful precisely because it is based on believable human behavior, behavior intentionally exploring emotion facets through creative ones—the way a human being’s mind, body, and spirit are expressed, defined, and bolstered by the activities one does to get through life on a day-by-day basis.